Every year since 2002, 80,000 fun seekers have descended on tiny Manchester, Tennessee, for the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival. For the struggling townsfolk, the four-day event is much more than a party... it's a living.
Author Mya Frazier
NOT THAT HE EVER HOLDS BACK, but the Boss is in rare form. His energy is unconstrained, his give and take with the audience an endless loop of goodwill. Maybe that’s what happens when you’re Bruce Springsteen and you’re playing in the warm summer air under a darkening sky in front of a delirious oversunned crowd, many of whom slept side by side on the same grassy fields the night before.
The Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival isn’t Woodstock, though if you squint, it’s pretty close: an endless sea of people on 700 acres of fertile farmland where dairy cows once grazed and neat lines of soybean and corn grew tall in the peaty Tennessee soil. Here at Bonnaroo, on the outskirts of a town called Manchester, everything comes in abundance: tie-dyed T-shirts, sandals, feel-good vendors (Ben & Jerry’s, homemade vegetarian burritos), beach balls, tents and—most important—spectators, who number nearly 80,000. Even the indefatigable Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band take it to the next level. A Telecaster slung behind his back, the Boss pauses in the middle of “Working on a Dream” and clutches the mic.
“We didn’t come down to the beautiful hills of Tennessee just to rock the house,” Springsteen says, waving his arms and pontificating like an old-time preacher. “We came down here tonight because we want to build a house, right here in this field.”
It’s moments like these—and there are always plenty of moments at Bonnaroo—that explain why Rolling Stone has named it the best festival in the country and why, year after year, Bonnaroo draws acts as eclectic as Willie Nelson, Phish, Snoop Dogg, Erykah Badu and a kaleidoscope of others. (This year’s headliners include the Dave Matthews Band, Stevie Wonder, Jay-Z and a stand-up performance by Conan O’Brien.)
Springsteen was speaking metaphorically about building a house, but the fact is that the four-day Bonnaroo festival has built many a house in Manchester. Since it came into being just eight years ago, the festival has transformed the lives of the locals and infused new energy into a town struggling to rebuild a decimated manufacturing base. As the Boss says, “When it comes to luck, you make your own.”
THE OFFSEASON IN MANCHESTER (POP. 9,442) is somewhat more subdued. The tie-dyed T-shirts are gone, mostly, though the occasional camper has been known to hop the fence and pitch a tent on the festival site. It falls to Dale Green, Bonnaroo groundskeeper and a lifelong Manchester resident, to shoo them away. One spring afternoon, Green eases into the seat of his shiny new white Dodge pickup for a drive around the property. A steady drizzle falls on the windshield. As Bonnaroo’s only year-round groundskeeper, Green sees the site a way few others do: without the crowds. Today, hay fields stretch for what seems like miles, a budding green landscape broken only by the 20-foot-tall orange metal arch with “Bonnaroo” across the top and some white storage trailers parked haphazardly in lots. “I just love it out here right now,” says Green, who speaks in a low-pitched Tennessee drawl. “I come in, lock the gate, and I’m the only one here.”
Green navigates gravel roads and concrete bridges that make up the infrastructure of the festival grounds. He helped install much of it himself, including 58 power transformers on concrete slabs that symbolize the evolution of the Bonnaroo festival into something less temporary. When this year’s four-day party gets underway on June 10, the lights and food booths will hook right into the grid instead of gas-powered generators, which are noisy, disruptive and not exactly “green.”
Until the first Bonnaroo festival in 2002, few Americans—in fact, few Tennesseans—had ever heard of Manchester. You might say that the festival put the city on the map, just like Woodstock, New York; Glastonbury, England; Montreux, Switzerland, and countless small towns around the world. If it is defined by anything, Manchester is defined by Bonnaroo. And like the original Woodstock (actually held in Bethel due to a last-minute snafu), the sleepy burg never really saw it coming. After all, in the history of a struggling small town’s economic development dreams, the one about the endless caravans of cars as far as the eye can see—like some eerie, real-life Field of Dreams—tends to get filed under “Keep Dreaming.”
Yet Bonnaroo’s debut drew an estimated 70,000 people and, so it’s said, turned the entire state of Tennessee into a temporary parking lot. And it keeps happening, year after year.
Bonnaroo is the brainchild of Ashley Capps, CEO of Knoxville-based company AC Entertainment, who was inspired by both the massive European summer music festivals and by the feel-good vibe he experienced at Phish concerts. “Capps went after that subculture of fans clamoring for good music not being played by the mainstream,” says Jeff Cuellar, AC’s director of marketing. So far, Bonnaroo feels inextricably linked to the bucolic hills around Manchester. However, showbiz is a tough industry. Anything could happen.
“The festival will be in Manchester to stay as long as we keep pushing to develop the brand,” Cuellar says. “We’re in a society where people are always looking to move on to what’s next. But we’ve created something more intimate than any old stadium show.”
That’s good news for local officials. Here’s why they’re so enthusiastic: In 2005, Bonnaroo fans spent $8.6 million in Coffee County, and festival organizers dropped another $1.9 million. The total economic impact was estimated at $14 million, including $4.3 million in personal income created locally that year. Bonnaroo isn’t just filling up Manchester’s rainy-day fund, it’s funneling much-needed cash into government coffers—$412,796 in one year alone—and creating an estimated 191 jobs. Green, the groundskeeper, never thought he would own a 105-acre farm before Bonnaroo. Last year, he bought one. Not to mention another bulldozer.
“I guess I’m the luckiest guy around,” Green says.
The Manchester Area Chamber of Commerce, a four-room office in a two-story building, sits on a square in the center of town surrounded by law offices and the courthouse. Around the corner, there’s Baker Brothers Drugs, a fixture since the 1920s, and an H&R Block. That’s about it. The retail heart of the city left long before Bonnaroo arrived, spreading along busy thoroughfares closer to the four highway exits.
Coffee County Mayor David Pennington and City of Manchester Mayor Betty Superstein sit side by side at the chamber’s long conference table, heaping praise on the festival and ticking off the list of economic benefits the area gets each year from Bonnaroo booths alone. Almost every nonprofit and local organization in Manchester runs one. The proceeds pay for everything from band uniforms to operating expenses for the youth baseball league. The chamber runs two booths and a general store that sells local tchotchkes. The annual take: At least $20,000. The Rotary parked cars for 48 hours and this year earned enough to build an amphitheater at the local recreation center. Another group earned $30,000 to pay for a skate park. The list goes on.
“If they get it to where it’s permanent, where there are five shows a year, Bonnaroo is going to be our base to build an industry in this community,” Pennington says, “an industry based on music.”
Ask around, and it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t benefit from the festival. Sam McAllister owns a two-story house with a wraparound porch, and from his front door he can look down his long gravel driveway, which curves down an incline, and see the main road leading to Bonnaroo. McAllister sold most of his 700 acres to Bonnaroo in 2007 for $8.6 million—a better price than the going rate.
Green himself had been toiling at his dad’s used car lot when he took a job at the festival. At the time, he figured come next summer those out-of-town music folks might be looking for a local with a good bulldozer.
“My father told me I lost my mind taking that job, that it won’t ever last,” Green recalls. “He said, ‘Bonnaroo will be out in two or three years and you won’t have nothing to do.’” Soon afterward, though, Green bought that farm of his. And he’s been busy ever since.
Freelance writer MYA FRAZIER is hoping she can find her Birkenstocks.
A SELECTION OF THE PLANET’S MANY SUMMER FESTIVALS
NATIONWIDE THROUGH JUNE 20
A country music fest featuring Montgomery Gentry and Jamey Johnson. www.countrythrowdown.com
THE DREAMING FESTIVAL
AUSTRALIA JUNE 11–14
This nation’s largest indigenous arts festival offers everything from feasts to campfire stories. www.thedreamingfestival.com
GEORGIA PEACH FESTIVAL
Nowhere else will you find fireworks, jazz, the Miss Georgia Peach Pageant and the world’s largest peach cobbler. www.worldslargestpeachcobbler.com
FESTIVAL DEL SOLE
NAPA VALLEY, CALIFORNIA JULY 16–25
Taste the world’s finest wine as some of the best chefs and classical musicians feed and entertain you. www.festivaldelsole.com
STONEHENGE SUMMER SOLSTICE
SALISBURY, ENGLAND JUNE 21
This free, one-night-only event is a gathering of modern-day druids and Stonehenge lovers.
It’s also the only time you can actually touch the monoliths. www.efestivals.co.uk
FÊTE DE LA MUSIQUE
PARIS JUNE 21
This citywide music fest features everything from classical quartets to reggae. www.fetedelamusique.culture.fr
PILTON, ENGLAND JUNE 23–27
The granddaddy of European music festivals is celebrating its 40th anniversary with U2, Willie Nelson and more. www.glastonburyfestivals.co.uk
FLORENCE, ITALY JUNE 24–26
Soccer players take to the field in 15th century garb. www.calciostorico.it
GRANADA INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL OF DANCE AND MUSIC
JUNE 24–JULY 14
Flamenco and more at churches, plazas and the Alhambra. www.granadafestival.org
VANS WARPED TOUR
NATIONWIDE JUNE 25– AUGUST 15
A sometimes unholy marriage of hard rock and extreme sports. www.vanswarpedtour.com
NATIONWIDE JUNE 27–AUGUST 16
This venerable celebration of women in music returns with a top-notch lineup: Cat Power, Emmylou Harris, the Go-Go’s and more. www.lilithfair.com
TASTE OF CHICAGO
JUNE 30–JULY 4
The largest food festival in the Midwest feeds three million people in Grant Park. www.explorechicago.org
RHINE IN FLAMES
RHINE VALLEY, GERMANY SATURDAYS, JULY-SEPTEMBER
A stunning five-city fireworks festival with medieval scenery as a backdrop. www.rhein-in-flammen.com
ROSKILDE, DENMARK JULY 1–4
This rock fest includes Gorillaz, Alice in Chains and Patti Smith. www.roskilde-festival.dk
ESSENCE MUSIC FESTIVAL
NEW ORLEANS JULY 2–4
Janet Jackson, Gladys Knight, Alicia Keys and De La Soul are among dozens of soulful acts hitting NoLa. www.essencemusicfestival.com
MONTREUX JAZZ FESTIVAL
MONTREUX, SWITZERLAND JULY 2–17
For two weeks, the silky sounds of jazz waft over the shores of Lake Geneva. www.montreuxjazz.com
THUNDER MOUNTAIN ROCKFEST
NORTH DAKOTA JULY 8–10
Check out your favorite classic rock acts, such as Asia and Survivor. www.rockdakota.com
OREGON BREWERS FESTIVAL
PORTLAND, OREGON JULY 22-25
The largest collection of craft beer purveyors gathers for a long, sudsy weekend. www.oregonbrewfest.com
GILROY GARLIC FESTIVAL
GILROY, CALIFORNIA JULY 23-25
Remember to bring mints to this culinary celebration of all things garlic. www.gilroygarlicfestival.com
FUJI ROCK FESTIVAL
NAEBA, JAPAN JULY 30–AUGUST 1
Party in the shadow of Mount Fuji with Vampire Weekend and Massive Attack, among others. www.smash-uk.com/frf10
MAINE LOBSTER FESTIVAL
ROCKLAND, MAINE AUGUST 4–8
The air crackles with the sound of snapping shells at this annual fête of the world’s tastiest crustacean. www.mainelobsterfestival.com
PEBBLE BEACH CONCOURS D’ELEGANCE
CARMEL, CALIFORNIA AUGUST 11-15
Nowhere will you find a more rarefied roundup of antique cars and the people who love them. www.pebblebeachconcours.com